Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.05.12

Will the Suga-Biden summit provoke China?

the japan times on April 22, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A. China

Based on my observations, global media coverage of the Suga-Biden summit meeting in Washington was rather favorable. Walter Russell Mead, for example, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit was “hailed in both countries as a major success,” and “The alliance with Japan is the single most important international relationship America has.”

“Without Japan’s economic weight, technological capabilities and geographical position,” Mead discerned in his keen analysis, that “the U.S. cannot build an effective coalition to balance China. But without strong and stable American support, Japan can’t last as an independent great power in China’s front yard.”

The primary exception to the generally glowing coverage, of course, came out of China. An April 17 editorial in the Global Times criticized the U.S.-Japan alliance as “becoming the axis of endangering peace in Asia-Pacific” and advised “Japan to stay away from the Taiwan question,” warning that “The deeper it is embroiled in, the bigger the price it will pay.”

Was the summit a success for Suga?

It was a success because the meeting achieved three strategic objectives for both Japan and Suga himself. They were (a) to demonstrate to the world the significance of Japan’s alliance with the U.S., (b) not to provoke China into overreacting to the summit talks and (c) to convince President Biden that Suga is a statesman who can be trusted.

Editorials in Tokyo’s major dailies were also more positive than I expected. The Sankei Shimbun noted the significance of the Taiwan reference and how the alliance was needed to enhance deterrence, while The Yomiuri, another conservative paper, wrote that a robust Japan-U.S. alliance was a must for the region’s peace and prosperity.

The Nikkei, which generally covers economic news, echoed the need for a deepening of the alliance “for stability and development.” The Asahi, Mainichi and Tokyo news outlets, and other liberal papers, for their part, urged Japan to maintain an independent China policy or keep a proper balance between Washington and Beijing, but did not harshly criticize the summit meeting itself.

For me, the success of the summit was guaranteed because the U.S. had already signaled a change in its foreign policy priorities, shifting its focus from the European and Middle Eastern theaters to the Indo-Pacific. President Biden’s announcement on April 14 that he would withdraw troops from Afghanistan was very symbolic and demonstrated this critical shift.

Transformation of the Japan-U.S. security alliance

With the shift in U.S. priorities, the alliance has transformed as well. Between 1960 and 1991, the focus of the alliance was to be prepared for possible contingencies arising out of the two Koreas, Taiwan and Vietnam. That was the reason why then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and U.S. President Richard Nixon referred to the importance of Taiwan in their 1969 joint statement.

Since 1991, however, the Japan-U.S. alliance started to drift. With the demise of the Soviet Union and Japan’s failure to actively join the First Gulf War, the two allies found it difficult to redefine the rationale and scope of the alliance. Unfortunately, with no tangible threats in sight, it took a few decades for Japan and the U.S. to do so.

The 2010 Senkaku incident in which Chinese vessels entered Japan’s territorial waters was the game-changer. That is when Tokyo first realized China was determined to change the status quo by use of force. It took almost another decade for Washington to face the reality and redefine the alliance. This is what the Suga-Biden summit was all about.

Why was Taiwan referred to in the 2021 joint statement?

David Sangar of The New York Times wisely wrote that “the importance of peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait “seemed deliberately drawn from” the aforementioned joint statement 52 years ago. To be more precise, it was not drawn from the 1969 document but from Japan’s consistent policy on Taiwan for the past five decades.

Despite various press reports claiming otherwise, Japan’s reference to Taiwan in the joint statement was not based on a request by the United States. The importance of Taiwan as it pertains to Japan’s security has not changed. After 1972, Japan did not have to refer to it because Tokyo was comfortable that China was willing to solve the Taiwan issue peacefully.

Unfortunately, the recent row involving Taiwan, including the incidents involving the Senkaku Islands, has caused Tokyo to question if Beijing is really committed to seeking a peaceful solution. If Beijing is willing to use the military option against Taiwan, Tokyo would be obliged to see Taiwan’s status as important and integral to maintaining peace and Japan’s security.

Will China retaliate?

As I predicted last week, the Japan-U.S. summit in Washington prompted a furious reaction from Beijing. The above-mentioned Global Times editorial criticized Japan as being a servant of the United States, “only at ‘semi-sovereign’ level” and “unlikely to contradict the U.S.”

“Japan is too short-sighted,” the editorial continued, “it formed an alliance with Germany and Italy before WWII and is now singing a chorus with the U.S.’ radical line. Japan hasn’t learned its lessons. It is, instead, proactively creating and sinking into a vortex of confrontation.” Is that so? I thought the contrary was true.

It is high time for Beijing to learn the lessons from Tokyo’s actions before World War II. If Beijing continues its hard-line policies, it will not only move Japan, the United States and other like-minded countries closer together but will also undermine the strategic interests of China. I am not giving in with bad grace. I know at least one senior PLA military officer who learned those lessons.

He is Senior Col. Dai Xu, an ultrahawkish professor at China’s National Defense University. Dai gave a speech last year admitting that he found four “unexpected” things that the Chinese people could not predict about the United States. They are (a) the level of hatred in the United States toward China, (b) the U.S. government acts ruthlessly leaving no room for negotiations, (c) no country has come forward to show sympathy and support for China and (d) a united front has been formed in the United States.

Dai concluded: “Combining the above four surprises, it is necessary for China to re-understand the United States. If we do not adjust our understanding of the United States from the ideological perspective, then we will inevitably deviate in strategy and tactics and may make major mistakes.” The steps were exactly what Tokyo would not do in the 1930s. Beijing still can learn a lot from Col. Dai.